Customer Service vs. quick profit :
Who wins... and who should?

The expression "Customer Service" is one that invariably elicits anxiety for most people - which is the clue telling us that something is terribly wrong.

We get anxious because we don't really have any confidence that merchants or suppliers will provide service once the sale is completed - that they will actually live up to the "Customer Service" promise they made to us as a condition of sale, or, that their "Customer Service" practices will not be so dehumanizing that we would actually prefer to avoid them, and just take the hit of the non-conforming product or service we purchased.

What's wrong?

Recently, I was fortunate to be put through the "Customer Service" wringer of a merchant I commonly use - fortunate in that the experience was such that it crystallized like never before the tensions that exist within the "Customer Service" paradigm.

These tensions are quite simple to describe. "Customer Service" costs money in the short term, and business, with their eye on the numbers for this financial quarter, don't want to spend that money. Oh, sure, they know anecdotally that great "Customer Service" may pay-off in the long term, through customer retention and brand loyalty and brand championing by customers, but that's too far down the road and the metrics are difficult to track in any case, so, as a consequence their "Customer Service" paradigm becomes corrupted by their need to generate short-term profit.

It's a slippery slope...

My experience demonstrates this phenomenon beautifully. I arrived at one of a chain of grocery stores I frequent, with the intention of returning an item still under warranty - a small electrical appliance.

This grocery chain, Loblaws , owned by a Canadian conglomerate that goes back generations, has, like many others, been hard-hit by the Wal-Mart factor - a ubiquitous purveyor of consumer durables that has entered the grocery business and now undercuts them in virtually every way, is better managed, has deeper pockets, and apparently is winning-over an increasing number of their customers.

Loblaws, like many others in their space, has responded by going head-to-head with Wal-Mart - trying to beat Wal-Mart at its own game, by also selling consumer durables.

Which explains why I arrived at a grocery store with a broken small electrical appliance to return. Imagine my horror though, when faced with a long, long lineup in front of a single "Customer Service" rep.

The horror :

We have all felt the dread - a supposed 5 minute side-trip to the store to return something, and, upon arrival, it turns out to be 45 minutes of being exposed to the belligerent conversations occurring between the other folks in the line-up, and the "Customer Service" reps who have been trapped there, doing that, all day. Everyone would rather be somewhere else - anywhere else. And the cash value of the return is like, five bucks, which makes the imposition that much more unbearable.

But my situation is a little different, because the "Customer Service" rep in this case is selling stuff. The long line-up, unbelievably, is composed of customers in pursuit of cigarettes and lottery tickets. No problem! I walk around to the side counter to get the attention of an employee doing some administrative work, and explain why I am there.

He looks at me wearily and explains that I need to talk to the "Customer Service" rep, and points to the end of the long line of cigarette and lottery ticket addicts. "But", I say, "that's the cigarette and lottery ticket sales lineup. I am here for Customer Service". He repeats his explanation, I repeat my interpretation.

Jammin :

Now, as you probably gather, this is not my first experience practicing what is in essence "culture jamming" for business. Essentially, I find it useful to explore business practices that exist not through foresight, but by accident, and that serve neither the customer or the business itself.

I'm careful, however, not to add to the stress of employees on these occasions, since they are invariably just as trapped, abused and made powerless by these practices as are customers. As such, I ask to speak to the store manager, a request that the employee complies with gratefully. This type of request has in the past led to interesting discussions with senior managers and executives, who are often just as appalled by circumstances, and pleased to have the opportunity to discuss and fix a problem that is costing them money and customers.

Yeah, right...

The Store Manager, just returning from a smoke break outside, arrives within moments, and we have almost the identical conversation I had had with the employee, except that the Store Manager describes their practices as "policy", being carried out by the "Customer Service Manager", and other assorted corporate evasions. He will not in any way engage with the issue at hand - that his "Customer Service" process has been co-opted by the cigarette and lottery ticket business... that in fact "Customer Service" has been suspended.

Our conversation clearly is not destined to become a useful one - for either of us - and it ends with him talking vaguely about bringing up with the "Customer Service Manager" what he considers merely a "staffing issue".

Curious, I wait to see if anything will happen to meet the immediate situation. A few minutes later, an additional employee hurries over from the direction the Store Manager had taken, and proceeds to man an additional cash register.. to sell more cigarettes and lottery tickets.

Yes, the competition between customer service and immediate profits had been decisively settled by management.

Who pays?

Just as the pay-offs from great "Customer Service" are difficult to generate short-term, trackable metrics for, the costs of poor "Customer Service" (or in this case the lack of), are equally difficult to measure in the short-term. So really, it becomes an accountability issue. If it can't be measured, it can't be tracked. If it can't be tracked, then nobody can be made accountable, which means that nobody has to do anything about it.

Unless, of course, you actually have a stake in the viability of the business - are a part-owner, shareholder or senior executive. Because when the failure of your "Customer Service" policy execution finally shows up in the numbers, it may be too late to do anything about it. Winning back customers will take so long, and cost so much, that you may simply be unable to afford to do so.

The lesson here is that Customer Service should not be considered a profit centre. Don't try to make quick money off it. If you do it right, you will win; if you don't, you will lose the farm.


Strangely enough, there is nobody that doesn't know this - simply by intuition!

Joel Spolsky lists 7 points that can serve as guiding principles for any operation, and they are so common-sensical that you have to wonder how so many businesses get it so wrong.

As I left Loblaws, broken small appliance still in hand, I passed the Store Manager on my way out. He had chosen what apparently he considered the best thing that, as senior manager, he could do to enrich the company in the circumstances. He was helping to bag groceries.

comment by g.white  
What is really insidious about this is how de-sensitized it makes us. The bar has been placed so low that we accept, rather than challenge outrageous behavior by companies. Its a uniquely Canadian thing though. In the U.S, managers focus on removing the barriers to business. In Canada, where competition is slim, they either dont notice, or have no incentive from consumers to do so.
comment by B. Tanner  
As a former customer service manager, Im not surprised to read this. Its just absolutely horrible how we get treated. One of my biggest pet peeves is trying to get an employee to get something from behind a locked shelf. Theyre alway chasing someone somewhere across the store or on break to get a key.
I had many battles with security departments in retail organizations. In the zeal to secure 3 to 5% shrinkage they put barriers that make shopping more difficult. The majority of shrinkage in stores are mostly from inventory keying errors or internal theft.
Security should be seen but not felt by customers and not hinder the shopping experience. Customers will get fed up, though. A revolution is coming. Banks that overcharge on fees, telecommunications companies that obviously price fix, retailers that insist on treating us like cattle. Facebook and social media will eventually change things. Those companies not foreward thinking will suffer the consequences.
comment by G. Maharaj  
Could not agree more with Tanner and White. I would love to be a more loyal Canadian shopper, but the retail gIants north of 49th parallel do little to keep my business prime example Canadian tire. Customer service is an oxymoron here. I was once confronted by a floor manager and chastised for checking that a package included all hardware before buying, since all the boxes were beat up. He got a earful from me in front of other customers on his lack of customer service, and get this his reply was " I can find out where you live". Now I spend as much of my retail dollars south of the border where customer service is delivered with genuine concern for the customer. I have yet to have a bad experience in the U.S., and my family and I are frequent shoppers here. Not sure what it is exactly, but training and retail staff personalities appear to be far superior. Maybe, just maybe now with Target, Nordstrom, whole foods, etc making the trek north will get these local giants to shape up.

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